This is the week where everyone wants to be Louis CK.
In case you missed it, here’s the story so far: Louis CK, the vulgar, brilliant, humanist comedian, has just circumvented the entertainment industry completely by independently producing, promoting, distributing, and (here’s the tricky part) monetizing his latest comedy special. Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater is available only through the comedian’s personal website, for a fee of $5. After four days online it sold over 110,000 copies. That’s a hit by any standard: Had he moved that many copies through DVD sales and iTunes, he would still have one of the top comedy videos of the year. But he did it on his own, without having to split a dime of the proceeds with anyone (well, anyone but PayPal).
Is there a comedian, filmmaker, author or band out there that isn’t enviously taking notes on how he did it?
It was easy: He just did it. Anyone can sell content this way. His website, though well designed, is technically simple. It sells you a video download for a small fee, handled by Paypal. It’s a business model developed years ago by the porn industry, and you can easily find “turnkey” templates that’ll let you plug your own video and branding into a pre-built site.
That explains distribution. Now, how about promotion? It was similarly easy, and cheap. Actually, it was free. Louis CK used Twitter and Youtube to get the word out, release “outtake” teasers and mobilize his fans to help build a viral hype.
So there you have it, a complete disruption of the content industry, available for anyone to duplicate. There’s just one more thing to consider, however, before you try: You have to be Louis CK for it to work.
It’s true, as CNN has put it, that it took Louis CK just four days to make $200,000 ($550K minus production expenses). On the other hand, it also took him 27 years. That’s how long he’s been a stand-up comedian. He spent decades in crappy comedy clubs and casinos, facing hostile crowds and honing his craft. He’s blown a shot at a network sitcom and at an HBO series. It’s only in the last five or six years–a period of time during which he’s toured rigorously, writing a new act each year, and using social media–that he’s built a critical mass of dedicated fans (over 800,000 of them on Twitter alone).
His relationship with his audience is so tight that it allowed him to do something that Hollywood and the music industry have spent fortunes trying and failing to accomplish: He has beaten piracy. He’s beaten it without threatening his fans with lawsuits and without putting digital locks on his content. He beat it by simply asking his fans, very nicely, to please not steal his stuff.
Almost all of them complied. When Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater came out, the pirate who uploaded it as a Bittorrent file actually apologized in the release note:
” honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal, not everyone has credit cards….sorry!”.
As the entertainment industry struggles to comprehend just what has happened here, they will call Louis CK an outlier, a special case, an exception. And they will be right.
But of course, all celebrities are exceptional. Whether it’s on the Internet or on MTV, there will always be many artists struggling for every one of them who makes a living. Up to now, though, we’ve had millions of artists earning close to nothing for every one who made millions. Soon, there will be thousands making hundreds for every one who makes hundreds of thousands.
It’s a better deal for creators, and a better deal for fans. A download of Louis CK’s old special sells on Amazon for $14.99.
Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown